If one thing has dominated the premières at this year’s Proms, it’s the presence of the concerto; thus far, we’ve heard no fewer than six (Dalbavie, Carter, Holloway, Holt, Larcher and Aperghis), with more coming in the days ahead. Monday’s Prom brought yet another concerto into being, Kevin Volans‘ Piano Concerto No. 3, performed by Barry Douglas with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard.
The opening few minutes give a clear indication of what lies ahead, the piano presenting a stabbing ostinato that immediately infects the orchestra, responding in glittering accented chords. The piano then dissolves into a fluid, grace note-strewn passage, bringing proceedings briefly to a halt; starting up again, the sections of the orchestra now take turns to predominate. This is the essence of the piece, and also its unifying aspect, since Volans is not concerned here with conventional notions of material development. He has very different ideas, and indeed, his working method—each day to continue where he’d left off, making no amendments to previous work—is audibly etched into the grain of the music. It neither develops nor evolves; in a sense, it unfolds, but even this doesn’t quite fit; perhaps all one can say is that it just happens, swiftly passing from idea to idea with only the barest of constants. There are occasions when Volans allows himself to revisit earlier material, but for the most part, this concerto is a flight of fancy, restlessly keen to press on, with barely a glance behind.
As one might expect from Volans, the work is nicely vague, stylistically speaking, and the overall manner it projects—characterised by a constant return to phrases that hammer out repeated notes and chords—which in lesser hands might just become emptily extroverted, is fascinatingly inscrutable: is the piece playful or pugilistic? heartfelt or calculated? loosely-spun or tightly-wound? is it a discourse or just a game?—indeed, is it all of these things? Volans’ resistance to pin the music down or seek to define it (still less, to explore some programmatic concept), is one of its chief successes; it provokes our curiosity and keeps us guessing. And it also succeeds in a way that might sound like a criticism: not everything we hear is vital, not every note counts—by which i certainly don’t mean parts could or should be cut from the piece, but rather that Volans has the chutzpah to put material down and just see how it sits, without feeling the compulsion to trim off any ‘fat’. This is most audible in the concerto’s lengthy, halting central episode, where one practically witnesses Volans trying out different ways forward, without simply presenting the ‘right’ one. It’s brave to afford oneself this kind of honest spontaneity, and the fact the material works itself out as convincingly as it does, is not so much a demonstration of an innate sense of direction than of Volans’ confidence to continue, regardless of whatever uncertainties may worry the music’s surface.
As a compositional attitude, it’s admirable, but the price one pays for that attitude is music that’s not necessarily terribly memorable. For some, that will matter, but to approach this concerto on its own terms (as one should at least try to do) is, i think, simply to trust it while it’s happening, and take from it what you will. There’s invention in bucketloads, and there’s confusion too, lots of it. i, for one, would much prefer to come away from a piece scratching my head than nodding sagely.